MOSCOW - When U.S. President George W. Bush hosts Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin this week at his Camp David retreat, the media will focus on how the two men keep bilateral ties on track after their brief honeymoon period after the September 11 attacks faded.
Putin, the first world leader to call Bush after the terrorist attacks, bonded well with the U.S. president, who had said in July 2001 that he had looked into the ex-spy's "soul" and found he could trust him.
Russia as a result became a firm ally in the war on terror as policymakers in the United States promoted an energy partnership turning Russia into an alternative source of oil to the turbulent Middle East.
But their "special relationship" was soured by Russian opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with Bush angered that Russia chose to side with France and Germany against the war.
"Bush realized that all his calculations that Putin is a loyal friend were wrong. This was a major disappointment for him," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute in Moscow.
Bush nonetheless tried to patch things up with Putin as the two men laid aside their Iraq quarrel at a summit in St. Petersburg on June 1 – although both men stuck to their positions over Moscow's controversial nuclear cooperation with Tehran.
"Bush decided the relationship with Putin was worth keeping. The U.S. administration may also have concluded that the best way to punish France was to forgive Russia," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center research institute.
The move seems to have paid off, as Putin has adopted a more moderate stance on postwar Iraq than France as Washington casts around for international support to help bring the violence-wracked Arab country under control.
Moscow appears ready to back a U.S.-proposed United Nations resolution that would endorse the deployment of a U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq in return for Russian companies getting a share of oil contracts.
"The position on Iraq is getting closer. Russian energy interests will be respected if Russia supports the U.N. resolution," Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Fond Politika think tank, predicted.
Washington meanwhile is still keen on Russian oil shipments – an energy summit is to be held just before the Sept. 26 - 27 Camp David talks at which a project to build a major Arctic export terminal in Murmansk will take center-stage.
"The spotlight will be on economic relations," a senior U.S. official said of the presidential summit. "They will also discuss military cooperation, like missile defense."
The official added, "These kinds of meetings are becoming more like meeting with friends and allies, [though] there is recognition on both sides that cooperation can be deepened."
But observers agree that the warmth has gone out of the relationship, and although cooperating in energy, anti-missile defense and anti-terrorism could yield significant benefits for both sides, deep mutual suspicions remain.
"As it stands today, the U.S.-Russian relationship is not broken, but it is pretty shallow," Trenin of the Carnegie institute said.
Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran remains a sore point, although Moscow has hardened its nonproliferation stance by endorsing an Oct. 31 deadline by the U.N. nuclear watchdog for Tehran to address concerns about its atomic program.
Russia's powerful nuclear industry lobby is determined to press ahead with the $800 million construction of Iran's first nuclear reactor, Bushehr, regardless of concerns that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the closure of Russia's last independent nationwide television channel, TVS, and the state's campaign against Yukos oil chief Mihkail Khodorkovsky reignited U.S. concerns about the lack of judicial and media independence in Russia.
"Bush is bound to bring up media freedom and the Yukos affair. That won't please Putin," the Fond Politika director said.
Fundamentally, the biggest obstacle to the development of U.S.-Russian relations may be that it relies too much on the personal ties between the two presidents.
"The French and German dispute with Washington over Iraq was bitter, but it was a family quarrel. We are not allies, and we don't have a mechanism to advance relations except the personal chemistry between the two leaders," Kremenyuk said.